The story so far: A foreign dictator intervened on behalf of a U.S. presidential candidate – and that candidate won. Close associates of the new president were in contact with the dictator’s espionage officials during the campaign, and his national security adviser was forced out over improper calls to that country’s ambassador – but not until the press reported it; the president learned about his actions weeks earlier but took no action.
Meanwhile, the president seems oddly solicitous of the dictator’s interests, and rumors swirl about his personal financial connections to the country in question. Is there anything to those rumors? Nobody knows, in part because the president refuses to release his tax returns.
Maybe there’s nothing wrong here and it’s all perfectly innocent. But if it’s not innocent, it’s very bad indeed. So what do Republicans in Congress, who have the power to investigate the situation, believe should be done?
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Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, says that Michael Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador were “entirely appropriate.”
Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, angrily dismissed calls for a select committee to investigate contacts during the campaign: “There is absolutely not going to be one.”
Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the House oversight committee – who hounded Hillary Clinton endlessly over Benghazi – declared that the “situation has taken care of itself.”
Just the other day Republicans were hot in pursuit of potential scandal and posed as ultrapatriots. Now they’re indifferent to actual subversion and the real possibility that we are being governed by people who take their cues from Moscow. Why?
Well, Sen. Rand Paul explained it all: “We'll never even get started with doing the things we need to do, like repealing Obamacare, if we’re spending our whole time having Republicans investigate Republicans.” Does anyone doubt that he was speaking for his whole party?
The point is that you can’t understand the mess we’re in without appreciating not just the potential corruption of the president, but the unmistakable corruption of his party – a party so intent on cutting taxes for the wealthy, deregulating banks and polluters and dismantling social programs that accepting foreign subversion is, apparently, a small price to pay.
Put it this way: I’ve been seeing comparisons between the emerging information on the Trump-Putin connection and the Watergate affair, which brought down a previous president. But while the potential scandal here is far worse than Watergate – Richard Nixon was sinister and scary, but nobody imagined that he might be taking instructions from a foreign power – it’s very hard to imagine today’s Republicans standing up for the Constitution the way their predecessors did.
It’s not simply that these days there are more moral midgets in Congress, although that, too. Watergate took place before Republicans began their long march to the political right, so Congress was far less polarized than it is now. There was widespread agreement between the parties on basic economic ideas, and a fair amount of ideological crossover; this meant that Republicans didn’t worry so much that holding a lawless president accountable would derail their hard-line agenda.
The polarization of the electorate also undermines Congress’ role as a check on the president: Most Republicans are in safe districts, where their main fear is of primary challengers to their right. And the Republican base has suddenly become remarkably pro-Russian. Funny how that works.
So how does this crisis end?
It’s not a constitutional crisis – yet. But Donald Trump is facing a clear crisis of legitimacy. His popular-vote-losing win was already suspect given the FBI’s last-minute intervention on his behalf. Now we know that even as the FBI was creating the false appearance of scandal around his opponent, it was sitting on evidence suggesting alarmingly close relations between Trump’s campaign and Russia. And nothing he has done since the inauguration allays fears that he is in effect a Putin puppet.
How can a leader under such a cloud send American soldiers to die? How can he be granted the right to shape the Supreme Court for a generation?
Again, a thorough, nonpartisan, unrestricted investigation could conceivably clear the air. But Republicans in Congress, who have the power to make such an investigation happen, are dead set against it.
The thing is, this nightmare could be ended by a handful of Republican lawmakers willing to make common cause with Democrats to demand the truth. And maybe there are enough people of conscience left in the GOP.
But there probably aren’t. And that’s a problem that’s even scarier than the Trump-Putin axis.